Some naming conventions are moods, inspirations, an instance or item that is totemic, encapsulating a particular series of values or ideals. Sometimes it’s in metaphor, or in tale. As hinted on Tuesday, there’s kind of a personal story around the reason Campfire, when it came to mind, resonated strongly for me. And the scene that occurred, and the events that lead up to it, tell a story that I hadn’t even pieced together until I happened to brainstorm around changing the name from Diaspora. While it might sound silly, this all begins at Burning Man.
It was on a windy, sandy night of my third Burn, the night of the man burn, in 2013. Leading up to the Burn, I wasn’t in good headspace: I had come in from NYC to SF, exhausted, and had spent most of the summer mulling my frustrations with work and my post-graduate school life. I had to immediately go to pack out our truck, drop off bags, and pick up supplies. Upon arrival the next day, our group had issues on entry. The camp itself was larger than it had been in years previous (45 versus 15 and 22 my previous years), and I was feeling completely disoriented. I was finding myself not cohering with anyone in camp the entirety of the event, and I wasn’t able to find a groove for myself in the city. I felt fairly isolated and alone, and in attempting to push through, dedicating to myself that i could enjoy the event “on my own terms”, which often meant alone, pushing myself to the next event, the next party, trying (and failing) to access some connection. I turned to a lot of drug salad that year, mixing and taking more surprises than I usually would, and that complicated my ability to process both my feelings and responses to them. FOMO hit hard, and I couldn’t shake it, not from myself, not from my group, not for the rest of the trip. In that space, that isolation can be daunting; you’re in your head, questioning all variety of things — your relationships, your pride, sense of self, angry about why you were out there. Why you bothered caring to be there. It’s something that happens a lot at Burning Man, the tension of being responsible for yourself and your community while in conditions that can pretty quickly test your mechanisms for assessment and care.
So when Burn night came around, in the wind and dust and fire, and another series of emotionally rocky surfs and tidewaters pulled at me, I quested off to try and enjoy a Stanton Warriors set, only to discover that their set had passed, or that I had not gotten to the right noise camp, and something kind of broke. In retrospect, I probably had a panic attack. And in the midst of those feels and the hippie flipping I had to calm my mind and my nerves and make my way back to camp (imbued with the sense of failure for retreating to camp on a party night). That wander can feel like a shot in the dark; after the Man burns, some camps begin to wrap up and leave the city, and physical markers of your topography start to disappear. Between those missing monuments and the raucousness of the night city swirling around, and every step forward feels like 3 steps back. Line of sight elongates into the night, stretching, spacetime warpeding around me, feeling akin to the distended sounds and screenshots of the third layer in Inception, where everything was happening in slow motion and real time all at once. And when I fought through that distortion and got to camp, I found it much as I felt at the moment: empty, dark, devoid of any people, energy, music. (And not to be dramatic, life.)
In that moment, I recalled that there were friends who were laying low at their camp at the adjacent corner, and so I quickly muddled myself over there, and found them camped out, with whiskey and blankets and a calm, cackling fire. A friend of mine brought me over, gave me the bottle, and let me rest my head and just…hang for an hour or two. I didn’t talk much, and I didn’t have to; I was allowed to laugh when I wanted, and nap for a second when I wanted. And for a while I got to feel some semblance of normal for the first time in a week. The fire was almost a little too warm for the night, but it was entrancing. People came and went, strangers passing by warmed themselves up and proffered stories and booze, and the night proceeded like a scene from Koyaanisqatsi, a swirl of people, words, laughter and quiet all around the constant of the fire pit.
I eventually got back to camp, went to bed, and closed out the event; got off Playa, unloaded, and immediately had to fly back to NYC and work the very next day. I was a physical and mental wreck with no recovery time to process what had happened that during my time on Playa. I came back dejected, and kind of torn; there was a lot of bad energy that came back and I ended up second guessing myself for a long time. Learning that your head is one of your greatest assets and can also be your greatest enemy can be a lot to work through. It took some time to realize those events, to understand the implications and places where its impact began to hide itself in my everyday life, and the project to unroot a lot of those things is still ongoing, but it is moving process. It took me three years to get back to the Playa, and thanks to the very same people who gave me that moment of calm, to get me back out on Playa again in 2016. They brought me back to my senses, and reinvigorated my relationship to both the event and the values, feelings, and connections it instilled in me.
The campfire of 2013 was a highlight, once that I can recall and to this day reminds me that there are people I love and that, even when things get crazy, we can find each other. And it’s that memory that bounded back when I was brainstorming new ways to think about the renaming of Diaspora, with the full sense of warmth, communing, and movement that the particular moment holds for me, and hopefully, to be shared with our guests and community. It’s easy to knock the Burn, thinking of it as some bougie hipster nonsense taken over by tech money and partiers. And I’ll never say there isn’t that element at play there. But it’s also a place that gave me a pretty foundational education, in 6 years of attending, the importance of immediacy, gifting, communality, engagement, and putting into practice a lot of the things that people like Arendt, Etzioni, Habermas, and a bunch of other political theorists spend a lot of pages theorizing about. It gave me an actionable understanding of how to treat certain values like presence and agency, and gave me new vectors for understanding actionable Judaism. And most of all, it gave us the space to dream that a better world is possible with intention; that the “default” world is one of many possible set-ups that we are capable of building, that a world filled with wonder, care, and empowerment, both individual and communal, is possible — but only if we work to build it.
There’s something about building a space that, yes, is fundamentally about food and sustenance but also serves as that same sort of meeting place, facilitating the act of connecting dots and seeing people, and in some small (in)direct way activating them to those things, to something more than just consumption. As others, have pointed out, sometimes a space can be a space of comfort, warmth, and sustenance, and that’s fine. But what if we could have a space that also raised questions and gave people the tools to answer them? What if it was also a space to build resiliency and power? If Campfire can be a spark to do that kind of work, along with making delicious foodstuffs…well, wouldn’t it be neat?
I’d like to think so.